Written by Esmeralda Santiago
Review by Patricia O’Sullivan

Ana, the only child of a proud Spanish family, was raised for one thing: to marry well. But Ana hates the constricted life of Spanish ladies and dreams of being a conquistador like her ancestors. When she is eighteen, Ana seizes the opportunity to marry Ramón, who has inherited a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico. Along with Ramón’s twin brother, Inocente, the couple travel to a remote part of Puerto Rico to manage the plantation. However, life as a patrón is not what they’d expected. The plantation’s buildings are in disrepair, labor is scarce, and slave rebellions are a constant threat. The twins become discouraged, but Ana is determined to make the plantation a success even if she has to harden her conscience to do so.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Ana is bad enough to be interesting but good enough to root for. In addition to Ana, several of Santiago’s characters have a complexity that forces the reader to see them as sympathetic even when they are behaving in ways considered despicable in a modern context. This complexity of the entire cast of characters is achieved through the author’s frequent switching of the narrative perspective, faddishly discouraged by American agents as a literary no-no but brilliantly executed in this novel. But Conquistadora is ultimately about Ana. Though she comes to understand the horrific conditions of the African slaves and how her way of life perpetuates these conditions, Ana also knows that the plantation is all that has kept her from the particular slavery of gender endured by women of all classes in the 19th century.